Bluegrass Beacon: Voice for reform silenced yet still heard

BluegrassBeaconLogoKentucky Roll Call publisher and American hero Lowell Reese, who was exposed to Agent Orange decades ago while fighting communism as a battalion commander in the jungles of southeast Asia, made the ultimate sacrifice for his country when he boarded his final flight from earth last week.

Reese took the oath to defend this country and its Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic” seriously.

There is no expiration date on that oath, which he understood isn’t just about defending America against some foreign enemy on some far-away battlefield.

Reese also served his commonwealth in the same spirit by firmly confronting domestic foes of his fellow Kentuckians – policies that threaten their future and politicians who profit at their expense, particularly as it relates to Kentucky’s public-pension crisis deemed by credible researchers as the nation’s worst.

He took particular aim at passage of House Bill 299 in 2005, which he labeled a “Pension Greed Act” because it allowed Frankfort’s politicians to calculate the size of their legislative retirement checks based on their full-time salaries in other government positions rather than their earnings as legislators.

“This practice allows part-time legislators to convert their normal pension to super-sized pensions,” Reese wrote in “Future Shock,” a series of Bluegrass Institute-published reports which offered analysis of and solutions to the state’s retirement-plan woes.

He chastised politicians from both parties for taking advantage of this policy and published estimates of their projected taxpayer-funded pension windfalls in order to show how many of those who voted for the Greed Act would personally benefit to the tune of hundreds of thousands –  and even millions – of dollars.

It’s not coincidental that the first of his proposed solutions in that report was to make the commonwealth’s retirement plans transparent, allowing taxpayers – including retirees who depend on state-funded pensions for their livelihoods and economic security – access to the kind of information needed to hold Frankfort’s politicians accountable and achieve challenging reforms.

“His work has been a major catalyst toward at least the attempts at transparency we saw this year in Senate Bill 2,” Chris Tobe, author of “Kentucky Fried Pensions” and a former Kentucky Retirement Systems’ trustee, said.

SB 2 proposed shining the light on Kentucky pension plans’ contracts with hedge funds and private equity groups, requiring that all such agreements go through the bidding process.

“We have hundreds of secret no-bid contracts that the trustees, state Auditor and even legislative review committees cannot see,” Tobe said. “Only the KRS staff can see all of the information.”

Reese abhorred such secrecy, believing it to be a dangerous enemy to sound public policy and an insurmountable obstacle to solving a crisis that threatens the commonwealth’s economic security and vitality.

That’s why he was so deeply committed to making the legislative retirement system transparent. Senate Bill 45 – also introduced during this year’s General Assembly session – would have done.

Reese rightly believed that opening the curtains on politicians’ pensions was truly worth of – and eventually would receive – overwhelming bipartisan support and lead to making the entire system transparent.

Tobe notes that Reese also was one of the first to call attention to the fact that 30 percent of the 1,700 entities in the Kentucky Employees’ Retirement System aren’t even public agencies.

“Lowell was a very important voice in the pension debate,” he said.

Neither of the aforementioned transparency bills, which passed the Senate unanimously, received a vote on the House floor during this year’s legislative session. Yet for the first time they did get through the State Government Committee, despite the uninformed opposition of its chairman, Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville.

The fact that the bills made it out of committee against House leaders’ entrenched hostility clearly indicates that though Reese’s voice may have been silenced by the enemy of death, it continues to ring strong throughout the commonwealth he loved and for which he fought.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at

New Stanford data points to serious achievement gaps in Louisville

A research team at Stanford University just released a huge report several days ago dealing with “Local education inequities across U.S.” The Stanford team collected testing data and other information on every school district in the nation. Then, using the National Assessment of Educational Progress as a common ruler, the Stanford team says they placed test results from 50 different state systems onto a common grading scale so that meaningful analysis between states and districts is now possible. This enormous database is available online, for free (registration is required) at the Stanford Education Data Archive.

It didn’t take long for people to jump into this new treasure trove of school performance data. One of the first groups is from the New York Times newspaper, where a team already assembled some really interesting comparison graphics in an article titled “Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares.”

I decided to see how the Times rated Kentucky’s largest school district’s performance.

The results aren’t pretty.

[Read more…]

Bluegrass Beacon – Detangling hair-braiding rules: Detour averted

BluegrassBeaconLogoAlong with his recently created “Selfie of the Week” contest, Gov. Matt Bevin’s Facebook page includes a video of the commonwealth’s 62nd governor going where most Kentuckians have never ventured – up to that little round enclosure at the Capitol’s pinnacle above the dome.

Bevin and his kids celebrated Spring Break by climbing myriad groups of stairs to get a bird’s eye view of Frankfort.

His video shows not only how small objects on the ground outside the Capitol seem but also offers a real perspective on how much smaller the floor of the rotunda under that dome appears from 200 feet high versus how it feels when you’re standing in that same spot surrounded by multitudes of self-serving politicians with an overinflated view of their own importance.

Perhaps the governor will consider climbing those steps again and inviting some of his fellow Kentucky politicians who’ve lost sight of why they were sent to Frankfort in the first place to tag along.

Rep. Hubert Collins, D-Wittensville, would be a good candidate for such a climb.

Collins, who’s occupied space in the General Assembly for more than a quarter-century, tried during this year’s legislative session to wreck a bill filed by fellow Democrat and state Sen. Perry Clark from Louisville detangling the commonwealth’s onerous regulations of natural hair braiding.

Bevin eventually signed the bill after it was passed by the legislature, but not before Collins did his best to replace the now-former obstacles of entry into what’s known as the “African style” hair-braiding industry with new, equally thick regulatory barricades that shut out entrepreneurs wanting to open businesses providing this service.

The level of irrationality imposed by both the former regulations and Collins’ replacement amendment reach even higher than those “walls.”

Kentucky law previously required natural hair braiders to spend 1,800 hours and thousands of dollars – anywhere from around $5,000 at the Paducah Beauty School to nearly $20,000 at the Empire Beauty School locations in Elizabethtown and Louisville – just to obtain the required license, even though the practice is totally natural and includes no dyes or chemicals.

“To add insult to injury, this training never even breaches into the braiding areas,” Clark said.

Yet after his fellow legislators voted to tear down these barriers, Collins proposed a floor amendment with several new requirements, including a $1,500 fee, which would trip up the dreams of immigrants – many from West Africa – who came to America legally and are willing to work their fingers to the bone while building a new life.

This nonsense of replacing one set of onerous regulations with another reminds me of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s quip: “I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning, I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”

What’s really ugly – no matter the angle from which it’s viewed – is that Collins’ amendment would have sent the $1,500 fee straight to the Kentucky Board of Hairdressers and Cosmetologists, which is chaired by none other than the lawmaker’s wife, Bea Collins.

Amazingly, even Rep. Reginald Meeks – also a Louisville Democrat who normally floats around in the outer reaches of the political sphere’s leftist regions – labeled Collins’ amendment “anti-business.”

He could have added “corrupt,” as well.

If Hubert and Bea Collins would ascend those stairs and glance back down when they reach the top, they would see what state government as enshrined in the Kentucky Constitution was meant to be: a miniscule part of our lives that serves its constituents, protects their liberties, provides a level playing field and removes barriers that prevent citizens from freely climbing as high as their dreams, dedication, abilities, hard work and destinies take them.

When that truly happens in Frankfort, watch Kentucky rise higher and go where it’s never gone before.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at

Michigan goes for education standards Kentucky should consider, too

It’s no secret that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are becoming more and more controversial.

So, why not adopt an already developed and proven set of state standards that produced the best education performance in the country before CCSS came along?

According to the Washington Post’s education reporter, Michigan’s legislators just did that. They dumped Common Core and said their state will now use the very excellent standards that Massachusetts had before CCSS came along.

By the way, dumping their former, very excellent standards made a lot of folks in Massachusetts really unhappy. Right now, people there are working to get a ballot initiative for the November election that will give Massachusetts back to its own, nation-leading former standards, too.

Here at home, Kentucky is at a standards crossroad right now. The Bluegrass State can continue with standards that saw a decline in recent eighth-grade math test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) along with flat performance for other fourth and eighth-grade reading and math areas.

We can continue with standards that are related to declines in multiple subjects in real college entrance tests such as EXPLORE and PLAN along with rising white minus black achievement gaps.

We can struggle on with standards that inexplicably ignore content needed by many students during the last two years of high school.

Or, we can go with proved standards that consistently gave Massachusetts just about the best performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress back before CCSS muddied up the waters.

Thanks to new federal laws, it looks like this is now Kentucky’s choice. We’d be pretty unwise not to take it.

NAEP “Proficient” scores for Grade 12 in sharper focus

Something I saw for the first time with the release of the NAEP Grade 12 results for 2015 was information about how the NAEP scoring scale relates to college readiness. The folks who run the NAEP have been researching this since 2008, and while the results are still “Provisional,” as research is continuing, the National Assessment Governing Board has determined tentative scores that show readiness for college without the need for any remediation are:

Math – 163

Reading – 302

But, here is the interesting thing. The scores below are what NAEP is currently using to show “Proficient” performance at the 12th grade level.

Math – 176

(Go here and click on the “Proficient?” symbol on the top graph)

Reading – 302

(Go here and click on the “Proficient?” symbol on the top graph)

So, when we are talking about 12th grade NAEP reading, what is scored as “Proficient” is also what is currently considered to be ready for college reading work.

However, in math, what NAEP says is Proficient work at the 12th grade is a score above 176 but students are currently being declared college ready with a notably lower score of only 163.

Will the NAEP change its 12th grade math proficiency cut scores to match the current research on college readiness?

Will this be reflected in math proficiency cut scores for Grades 4 and 8 as well?

Of course, the lower grade NAEP math frameworks were not changed in 2005 like happened with the 12th grade frameworks, and the lower grades even use the older 500-point scoring scales instead of the new 300-point scale for the 12th grade NAEP.

Furthermore, research I have been doing since 2007, comparing Kentucky’s NAEP Grade 8 Math proficiency rates to the percentages of the same Kentucky students scoring at or above the ACT, Inc.’s EXPLORE test results for college readiness, shows that at least the eighth grade NAEP proficiency rate might be set just about right, now.

In any event, with all the emphasis at present on college readiness, I am confident we’ll be hearing more about NAEP scores relating to readiness in the future. As the National Assessment Governing Board says, what they are reporting now is only “Provisional.”

But, it is already interesting.

And, only about one in three seniors is being declared ready for college by the NAEP.

New Grade 12 NAEP data continues disappointments from lower grade results

I blogged a few days ago on the first results from the new, 2015 results for 12th grade students from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That first blog focused on the low percentage of high school seniors that NAEP shows are really college ready in both reading and math (Just 37 percent).

Today, we examine the overall score trends for all students in reading and math. This first graph shows the NAEP reading score trend over time, which is reported on a 500-point scale.

G12 Reading Trend in Scores 1992 to 2015

Where you see an asterisk next to a score, such as for the 292 score posted in 1992, that score is statistically significantly different from the 2015 score, which is 287.

There are not many asterisks here, and they all date from the 1990s. So, reading performance has been flat for nearly two decades. And, the average reading ability of the nation’s 12th grade students has remained below the level NAEP deems to be “Proficient” reading. That isn’t good news.

Things deteriorate more when we look at math.

G12 Math Trend in Scores 1992 to 2015

In the case of math, the NAEP completely revised its testing frameworks in 2005 for the “Main NAEP,” which is where the new 12th grade results come from. So, the trend line to earlier test results in math was shattered for Main NAEP Grade 12 Math. To really drive this home, the NAEP even shifted the math scoring from a 500-point to 300-point scale.

Never the less, for the few years of data available, we see an asterisk for the 2013 data which shows the most recent 2015 score is statistically significantly lower than the score two years prior, which again is not good news. Also, apparently due to different student sample sizes in different testing years, the 2015 score is not statistically significantly higher than the score posted back in 2005.

We also see that the most recent NAEP Grade 12 math average score is well below the proficient level. In fact, just by visual inspection of the two graphs in the blog, the average math performance is obviously closer to “Basic” level than is true for reading.

To reiterate, this isn’t good news.

By the way, there are some curious things going on related to NAEP’s “Proficient” scores for 12th grade students, so stay tuned for that next.

[Read more…]

And, JCPS teachers are fussing about their pay??

This table ranks the average classroom teacher salaries in Kentucky’s 173 school districts. Of Note: the Jefferson County Public Schools teachers get even higher average pay than the enormously funded Anchorage Independent School District provides.

2015-16 Teacher Salaries in KY Districts

Also of note is the enormous pay gap. While JCPS pays an average teacher $61,944, the tiny Augusta school system is only paying $41,743 on average. That’s a difference of more than $20,200!

However, in the latest available 2015 testing results for 11th grade students in Kentucky with the ACT college entrance test, Augusta Independent posted a composite score of 20.2. Jefferson County only posted an ACT Composite Score of 18.8. The “bang for the buck” differential is amazing.

By the way, more information in the 2014-15 Kentucky School Report Cards databases shows that the combined free and reduced cost lunch eligibility in Augusta is 69.3 percent. The lunch eligibility rate in Jefferson County is 65.1 percent.

Oh, Yeah, the same report cards show per pupil spending in Jefferson County was $12,739 in 2014-15 while Augusta only got $10,956 per student.

NOW, who’s REALLY getting better bang for the buck?

[Read more…]

On the Press Coverage of Common Core

Richard Phelps is a long-time correspondent of mine and a real testing expert with a ton of experience. His new article for the Pioneer Institute does a great job of outlining the extreme bias in the way the Common Core story has been covered by the national media, and is well worth a read.

Federal test results for nation’s 12th graders not so hot

(Updated April 28, 2016)

New 12th grade results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress for reading and math have just been released, and there isn’t any cheering going on. The cover web page summarizes the results this way:

“In comparison to 2013, the national average mathematics score in 2015 for twelfth-grade students was lower and the average reading score was not significantly different.

In comparison to the first year of the current trendline, 2005, the average mathematics score in 2015 did not significantly differ. In comparison to the initial reading assessment year, 1992, the 2015 average reading score was lower.”

There is a lot to look at here, and you can click the “Read more” link to get started.

[Read more…]

More dubious school spending stuff about Kentucky from NPR

I blogged twice last week (here and here) about a National Public Radio report that said Louisville’s schools were behind on funding as of 2013. That certainly doesn’t jibe with 2012-13 school funding data from the Kentucky Department of Education or the US Census Bureau, either.

JeffCo Vs KY Vs US Per Pupil Funding 2013

But, NPR is at it again, this time with a report that “Kentucky’s Unprecedented Success In School Funding Is On The Line.”

In this new article, NPR interviews educators from Kentucky’s Wolfe County School District, where the superintendent bemoans, “I feel like our children are being betrayed” regarding recent school funding levels.


Facts are that the latest Revenue and Expenditure Report for 2014-15 from the Kentucky Department of Education shows Wolfe County’s Total Revenue per Pupil was $14,465 in that school term, ranking 32nd best among the state’s 173 school districts.

Statewide, Per Pupil funding was $12,918 in the 2014-15 term.

Just one year prior, Wolf County reportedly got $12,465 per pupil.

So, Wolfe County’s total education dollars per pupil rose by a cool $2,000 in just one year, a 16 percent increase, which is way above inflation.

And, Wolfe County is still complaining about money???? And, NPR is swallowing this???

Common, NPR. How about telling the rest of the story, as the late Paul Harvey so nicely used to put it?